Humans: Are We Toxic, or Just Learning?
By Emma Smith | Aug. 26, 2023
In the winter of 2010, I was newly independent. Only 19 and living with roommates while going to college, I also had a new best friend, Jenny. She and I had been attached at the hip for the better part of a year, and I was experiencing the intense kind of female friendship that is so often fueled by a desperate desire to find one’s place in the world. I loved spending time with Jenny—we laughed together, cried together, and had meaningful conversations that remain unmatched to this day. Naively, I thought that we would be friends forever.
Jenny had a long-term boyfriend with whom she had been having relationship problems for some time. She confided in me often and I, being inexperienced in the ramifications of such things, shared my uncensored thoughts and feelings on the matter. As you might imagine, this ended poorly for me.
One day, Jenny made an appointment with a therapist, and afterward, she said that she and her therapist had come to the conclusion that I was the one causing all problems in her life and that I was a “toxic person.” This shocked and hurt me. Was I? I considered it. At the time I didn’t think so, but looking back, I’m really not sure. What I do know is that the label has stuck with me and caused me to contemplate the meaning behind her words ever since.
Jenny and her boyfriend broke up about a year later, but after the day she cut ties with me, we never really talked again. It was painful and confusing to learn that someone I loved spending time with did not want to be around me any longer. I had never intended to cause problems in Jenny’s life but, evidently, I had. Looking back, I now realize that I had inserted myself into Jenny’s world in an unhealthy and unsolicited way. I had smothered her with my constant desire to spend time together, to feel included, and assumed that she felt the same way about me.
After Jenny and I parted ways, I became much more cautious and reserved in my relationships. I kept things private. I didn’t allow myself to be too vulnerable. And I learned that sharing my whole self with someone is a privilege to be earned.
Although it’s become common over the last decade, I have refrained from using the word “toxic” to describe people with whom I don’t see eye to eye. That’s not to say it isn’t tempting to use that word. I know how much simpler it feels to blame others for my situation, to shift accountability for whatever role I may have played in what happened. I know how easy it is to believe that I am the victim when a relationship deteriorates. I know how validating it feels to be the protagonist in my own story, but I also know what it’s like to be labeled the “toxic” one.
Not only does labeling people in this way oversimplify them, it also conveniently ignores the multi-dimensionality of being human. The vast majority of people are not good or bad, toxic or non-toxic. People are complex beings who form relationships in order to meet their needs and interact with others based on their perceptions of the world and lived experiences.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the hardest part of life for me, thus far, has been realizing there are some relationships that are just not salvageable. There are some people who will never understand you and who will never really try. I’ve had to cut people out of my life over the years, but I have never wanted to.
Even still, I don’t consider them to be toxic. Rather, I think of them as people with whom I am just not compatible. Very rarely has someone I’ve cut ties with been intentionally trying to hurt me. If they had, it would have been much easier to sever the relationship. The more complicated truth, however, is that people have vastly different experiences, and these experiences inform the way they treat others.
Wherever Jenny is now, I hope that time has granted her the ability to look back fondly on our friendship. I still wish that we could have found a way to stay friends, that we could have talked things through, but I also understand and respect her decision to step away. It was not her responsibility to manage my emotions, and my expectations of our friendship had become too arduous. Jenny made the decision that felt best for her, and I can’t fault her for that.
I was able to learn and grow as a result of what happened, and I continue to learn and grow from all of my relationships—even the ones that didn’t work out.
Emma Smith, MA, LLPC, works as part of the Development Team at Child and Family Services. She is also a clinical mental health therapist and recently opened her own private practice, Blue Thistle Therapy.